Let’s give Ronald Ferguson, Robert Schwartz and the other scholars behind the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s defense of damning poor and minority kids with low expectations some credit: The report does have colorful graphics. But that is all it is. The 52-page report along wrongfully perpetuates a century-old philosophy — that poor and minority kids aren’t capable of high-quality, college-level education — that is condemning far too many young men and women to poverty and prison.
The overall argument of the report — that efforts to bring college preparatory education to public schools (and improve the rigor of curriculum in American public education) is contributing to the nation’s dropout crisis — doesn’t hold water when one knows that the nation’s five-year graduation rate has barely budged between the Classes of 1991 and 2007 (81 percent and 78 percent, respectively). If anything, given that the efforts overhaul curriculum have begun just a decade ago, Ferguson and his colleagues can’t prove their point in any empirical manner.
The report certainly attempts to use the argument (often trotted out by the Charles Murrays of the world) that not every job requires a B.A. and that many jobs may only require community college degrees or just a vocational apprenticeship. The problem with that line is that in reality, the high levels of reading, math and science literacy needed to graduate from college are also needed for high-paying blue-collar jobs. Welders, for example, need strong trigonometry skills while machine tool and die makers are often times the same kind of top math students that go into the tech sector. Elevator installers-repairmen need strong science skills in order because their work combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering skills; the same is true for electrical and electronics installers who work in power plants.
The biggest problem with the report is the underlying philosophy that Ferguson, Schwartz and others advance with their so-called multiple pathways: That poor white, black and Latino children are incapable of college-level learning. It isn’t new at all: The Poor-Kids-Can’t-Learn argument dates as far back as the Progressive Era of the last century, when another generation of educators declared that blacks and immigrants were also incapable of learning; it gave us the ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model that has helped foster the nation’s education crisis. And as known by anyone who has looked at the results of the charter schools operated by Knowledge is Power Program, Catholic schools and top traditional public schools serving those students, it is as false now as it ever was.
The real problem lies not with student capacity to learn, but with the low quality of instruction and curricula — including the lack of intensive reading remediation in early grades. As studies have demonstrated — and as the Los Angeles Times showed last year in its series on the effects of teacher quality on students attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the difference between a high-quality and a low-quality is stark. A child progressing ahead of grade level in previous years can fall behind quickly because of low quality teaching.
Contrary to what Ferguson, Schwartz and their colleagues are willing to admit, the solution isn’t dumbing down education and expectations, but elevating them. This is especially true in the early grades when the consequences of poor reading instruction and the lack of the intensive reading help (a problem for 40 percent of all kids entering school) fosters the dropout crisis. When a kid is poorly instructed in reading — and doesn’t get the reading remediation needed to catch up, he will fall behind. As Stanford University Researchers Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles determined in a 2006 study, low literacy levels in first grade are strong predictors of long-term disciplinary problems.
The reality is that a college preparatory education is critical for students so that they can fulfill whatever economic and social destiny they choose. At some point, every young man and woman will have to deal with abstract concepts, think through political issues, and even engage in cocktail conversation involving Chaucer or genetics. A rigorous, rich, college prep education helps prepare our kids for productive, enriched lives, whether or not they attend college, trade schools, apprenticeships or any other form of higher education. Arguing that they don’t need such an education merely damns them to lives of mediocrity — and in the case of kids in our dropout factories, prison cells and welfare lines.
Considering that Ferguson has spent much of his career shedding light on the reality that young black men are falling behind educationally and economically, the fact that he would even be involved in writing this report is galling. One has to wonder what was he thinking when he joined in this exercise. Same is also true for the rest of the Harvard ed school staff involved in putting together this claptrap. What they are suggesting is that some kids can’t learn and we should simply find ways to put them somewhere. American public education already does that in the form of alternative school ghettos, special ed asylums and dropout factories.
Our kids deserve better than what they current get and what Ferguson, Schwartz and others want to offer.